In Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus, how might one trace Faustus' gradual downfall as a tragic hero?
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The central character in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus undergoes a gradual tragic downfall in a number of ways during the course of the play. Consider, for instance, these examples:
- In the prologue to the play, Faustus’s potential is stressed. His downfall is foreshadowed, but he is compared to Icarus, a memorable and literally lofty figure from classical mythology.
- When Faustus himself first appears on stage, his focus is still mainly intellectual, especially as he considers how he should spend his life – as a philosopher, theologian, doctor, or lawyer. Finally, ironically, he makes an especially bad choice: to dabble in black magic.
- Dabbling in black magic is bad enough, but Faustus soon actually summons up a demon from hell to serve as his assistant.
- When that demon actually appears and tries to warn Faustus not to proceed with his hellish plans, Faustus not only rejects this advice but actually mocks the demon who gives it.
- As evidence that he is willing to commit his soul to Satan, Faustus even stabs his own flesh so that he can sign his Satanic contract with his own blood.
- Later, having attained magical powers, Faustus uses them not in any grand ways but rather to present himself as a kind of cheap entertainer in the courts of powerful people.
- Later still, Faustus not only rejects the advice of a wise old man but even calls on devils to attack the man. This is perhaps the low point of Faustus’s ethical behavior. Speaking to Mephastophilis, Faustus says,
Torment, sweet friend, that base and crooked age [in other words, the old man]
That durst dissuade me from thy Lucifer,
With greatest torments that our hell affords.
In seeking to visit pain on another person, Faustus reaches, in some ways, the nadir of his moral existence.
- Whereas the play began with Faustus at least pretending to be an intellectual, late in the play he has become obsessed with the ephemeral flesh, as when he asks a demon to summon from the dead the legendary – and legendarily beautiful – Helen of Troy.
- Finally, in the closing scene, Faustus not only wishes that he were an animal rather than a human being but also even curses his own parents for engendering him.
In short, Faustus, much like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, undergoes a slow but steady process of spiritual degeneration – a process which one might see, in some ways, as a tragic downfall. As W. H. Auden famously said, when one reads a classical tragedy, one thinks, “What a pity it had to be this way.” When one reads a Christian tragedy, such as Doctor Faustus, one thinks, “What a pity it had to be this way when it could have been otherwise.”
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